Sheriff's Office to refocus on verifying employment documents

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office will have to shift its focus from investigating the immigration status of petty criminals to verifying employment documentation after federal officials reminded the office of its agreement this week, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.

Immigrations and Customs Enforcement asked Tanner to direct the five deputies with the authority to enforce immigration laws to focus solely onemployment documentation,not on identifying illegal immigrants arrested during traffic stops and for other misdemeanor offenses.

"We were spending upwards of 60 percent of our time at the jail, identifying suspected foreign-born illegals at the jail and, as of Friday, we will spend no time at the jail," Tanner said. "They've basically told us to stay out of the jail side and let the ICE agents in Charleston handle that. I understand that there are two arms of ICE and our (agreement) with them is with the investigative side, but I want to do both."

Deputies have used information from audits of businesses to make five arrests in the past two months of workers using falsified or stolen identities to get jobs, Tanner said. Those arrested are charged with misdemeanor forgery, punishable by up to three years in prison, according to state law. The deputies investigated 11 businesses.

"The cases we've worked so far have been very small businesses," Tanner said. "I wanted to give our deputies cases that they could manage, but when we start (investigating) major businesses in the county that have hundreds of employees -- I wish I knew how long it was going to take our guys to investigate those cases. These are full-fledged criminal investigations. We not only have to inspect, but we've got to prove."

The Beaufort County Council mandated the audits of businesses in late 2006 over concerns about illegal workers. The county paidAdvance Point Global about $175,000 last year to audit more than 470 businesses. The audits included reviews of companies' payroll lists and federally required immigration forms, known as I-9 forms, for each employee.

Advance Point Global president Andy Patrick told the County Council last month his company found about1,000 questionable I-9 forms. Of those, Patrick said, APGturned over to law enforcement the names of 194 employees working at 22 businesses countywide.

Beaufort County Administrator Gary Kubic said the county wants to work with business on employment verification to ensure compliance with county ordinances and a state law passed last year that also requires businesses to make sure their workers are legal.

"We have never revoked a county business license on the basis of employee verification," he said. "We want to work with business, not put them out of business. We understand the economy and that sales have dropped and gross receipts have dropped and we're trying not to be a threatening agency."

Phil Foot, director of the Beaufort County Detention Center, doubts the shift in focus willcreate a logjam of illegal immigrants at the already-overcrowded detention center.

"It hasn't been a problem for us so far," he said. "As soon as their criminal charges are satisfied, ICE has been pretty good about coming down and getting them. I don't know if we will be impacted, but I don't see anyone staying any longer as a result of this."

On Thursday, Foot said 48 of the detention center's 290 inmates were ICE detainees. The jail was built in 1992 to house 255 inmates.